Plagiarism in the Online Environment: Cautionary Tales

cla-photoPlagiarism in the Online Environment: Cautionary Tales

by Barnaby Hughes

Plagiarism has never been easier to detect nor easier to commit.

I learned about plagiarism the hard way. Fortunately, I learned that lesson early in life. It happened in seventh grade. I was asked to write a book review. Much of my review was plagiarized from the publisher’s blurb on the back of the book. My teacher kept me after class and gave me the biggest guilt trip of my life. I cried tears of shame. As much as I hated the guilt trip, it worked. I have not plagiarized since.

One of my duties as the former managing editor of SLIS Student Research Journal was to check every submitted manuscript for plagiarism. How did I do this? Using a simple system called Turnitin. I uploaded the manuscript to the website and within a few seconds Turnitin provided a percentage score that reflected how much of the material had appeared previously. This could be useful not only for detecting plagiarism, but for assessing the originality of a manuscript. Usually, the score was low, say 5%-15%, but if the author had included numerous large quotes, the score could be much higher.

Turnitin also provides a detailed breakdown of the score by highlighting all of those portions in the manuscript that have appeared elsewhere, along with source notes. This can be especially helpful if the score is 100%. Rather than immediately worrying that the author has plagiarized, I could immediately discover whether or not the manuscript had been previously submitted by the student for a class at SJSU.

Additionally, where the student was submitting a manuscript based on a class paper, I could use Turnitin to discover if the student had subsequently edited the paper for publication. (A note to prospective SRJ authors: editing class papers before submission is highly desirable.) Similarly, when a manuscript had been submitted by multiple authors, Turnitin could sometimes tell me who contributed which portions. It should be obvious that Turnitin is a powerful tool.

This cautionary tale is not only meant for students, however; it is also aimed at lazy and/or unimaginative instructors. Because of the increasing publication of e-portfolios and other examples of student work online, it is imperative that instructors come up with new assignments every term. For example, when working on an assignment for LIBR 256: Archives and Manuscripts, I was asked to catalog a handwritten letter. When I searched Google to learn more about various entities referred to in the letter, I immediately discovered that an earlier student had published on his blog a full catalog record for the item. While I was unable to use the student’s work exactly as it stood, it did make my work considerably easier.

A similar experience happened to me when taking LIBR 284: Digitization and Digital Preservation. The instructor asked us to discuss the copyright implications of digitizing various items. As soon as I began searching Google to learn more about the items, I discovered that multiple students had published their completed assignments online as part of their e-portfolios. Again, while I couldn’t copy them word for word, they did provide me with sample responses that I could use in formulating my own answers.

I cannot decide whether or not I like working on assignments under these conditions. Part of me is annoyed that I cannot simply complete my assignments without reference to those of other students. Yet, seeing what others have written forces me to be more critical of their work. For example, did the student make cataloging errors or cite appropriate sources? Keeping these things in mind can help me write a better answer, one connected to previous answers. It is a bit like writing works of original scholarship, where you have to put your own research into context, inserting it into the scholarly conversation/literature. Our ideas, thoughts, and initiatives, etc. do not exist in a vacuum.

Let me repeat: Plagiarism has never been easier to detect nor easier to commit. It is absolutely vital that students understand the power of tools like Turnitin. They should also consider the effects of publishing their own student work online. Instructors, conversely, should be cognizant of the fact that previous students have published answers to current assignments online. Moreover, they ought to seriously consider devising new assignments every semester, so as not to tempt students into plagiarizing.

Discussions of plagiarism almost invariably lead to discussions of source attribution. Copying the work of others is often completely acceptable, if done in small quantities and with proper citations. Indeed, the scholarly economy is based upon it. We call it information sharing and exchange. It is what libraries are for (among other things). No one should know this better than library students and instructors.




Barnaby Hughes lived in England for nearly ten years where he studied history, theology and medieval studies. As a MLIS student and former Managing Editor of the SLIS Student Research Journal, he has a particular interest in scholarly communications and plans to write a thesis on institutional repositories. Barnaby has a passion for singing renaissance polyphony and writes about opera and wine in his spare time.